Irish dancers are pretty notorious for having hard workouts, asking nearly impossible things from their bodies, and being prone to injury. The difficulty of this dance form means we should be taking extra care to warm up and cool down properly and take care of our muscles so they will continue to work hard for us. If you’re looking for ideas on how to warm up and cool down, check out these posts (http://irishdancersnextdoor.blogspot.com/2014/11/how-to-cool-down-from-irish-dance.html and http://irishdancersnextdoor.blogspot.com/2014/11/how-to-warm-up-properly-for-irish-dance.html). Though doing a full body stretch at the end of a class or practice would be ideal, there is not always time to stretch everything. Whether you are in a hurry or not, make time to stretch these five muscle groups every time you practice.
As some of the biggest muscles in your body, your glutes are working hard every practice. The coveted Irish Dance booty isn’t around for no reason—Irish dancers kick bum people! We are working these muscles groups hard, so we have to stretch them consistently. The best way to get at these muscles is to lay on the floor, cross one leg over your other knee (making a four) and gently pulling on your leg to stretch your booty. Remember to do both sides and hold for at least 30 seconds.
All Irish dancers want beautiful extension on their leaps, kicks and clicks, but you won’t be able to find that extension if you have tight hammies. Lay on your back and extend one leg into the air. Make sure it’s straight and gently pull it towards you face until you feel a nice stretch in the back of your leg. You can flex your foot for a more intense stretch. The longer you hold this stretch the better, give your muscles a chance to loosen, then pull your leg a little closer to achieve lengthening. Loosening your hamstrings can also help you achieve straight legs throughout your dancing– it’s hard to straighten through your knees if your hamstrings don’t want to let go.
Stretching your quads is one of the most important stretches Irish dancers can do because we work them overtime! Most of us have overdeveloped quadriceps from all of the lifting we do (not to mention lifting with heavy shoes on). Quads that are overly tight can pull your knees out of alignment and eventually lead to tracking problems and pain. I had a physical therapist tell me to stretch my quads at least 5 times a day! Stretching your quads also helps achieve extension to the back (tucking that back leg on leaps, bicycle jumps, kicking your bottom). Stretch your quads by lying face down on the floor and holding onto one ankle and pulling your foot closer to your bottom. For a more intense stretch think about pushing your hips into the ground as you pull on your foot.
Irish dancers use their hip flexors just as much as they use their quads, and they can get very tight, very fast. Your hip flexors lift your leg to the front, so all that picking up your feet in hardshoe really works them hard. Lengthening your hip flexors helps with extension to the back and helps you engage the muscles that help you turn your legs out. Stretch your hip flexors by finding a lunge position, putting your back knee on the floor and gently pushing your hips forward. For a more intense stretch, engage your core.
We know Irish dancers have amazing calves, but just because they look good doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard. Because we are on our toes all the time without releasing into the floor, we need to spend extra time stretching our calves and achilles. The best way to do this is put one foot in front of the other, bend your front knee and lean forward until you feel a stretch in your calves. To get at your achilles (which is in a constantly shortened state while you dance) put both feet next to each other on the floor, bend your knees and try to keep pushing your heels down.
Taking time to stretch after class not only helps prevent injury, but improves your ability to Irish dance the best you can. My advice is to find a song you love to listen to, tell yourself you are going to play it at the end of a tough practice and stretch to it. You’ve just given yourself some motivation to get through your practice and take time to take care of yourself at the end.